Proposed chicken slaughterhouse divides residents, businesses in Virginia city

ALEXANDRIA, Va. – The row of aging warehouses in an industrial zone just off Duke Street seemed like a perfect spot for Abdulsalem Mused to open a halal butcher shop, where his employees could kill and prepare chickens according to Muslim practices.

But the idea is ruffling the feathers of neighbors, including the owners of three dog-related businesses, a commercial bakery owner and the patron of a dance studio a full block away.

The Alexandria City Council has delayed until Tuesday a vote on whether to issue the business a special-use permit, after about a dozen residents raised objections at a March 16 meeting and the all-Democratic council could not muster the votes to either approve or deny the permit.

An empty building in a warehouse district in Alexandria, Virginia has stirred controversy because a company wants to open a halal butcher shop there and slaughter chickens on site. (Washington Post photo by Patricia Sullivan)

Opponents said they are concerned about smells, traffic and general unseemliness.

“Take the word halal out of it. I wouldn’t care if it’s a kosher slaughterhouse, an Italian slaughterhouse, a Midwestern slaughterhouse that wanted to open there,” said Sandy Modell, owner of the nearby Wholistic Hound Academy. “A butcher shop is one thing. A slaughterhouse is another.”

DC Live Poultry Market would be the first halal slaughterhouse in close-in Northern Virginia, Mused said. He plans to truck in chickens from a farm in Lancaster, Pennsylvania – up to 500 during Muslim holidays and up to 100 on other days.

The cement-block building in Alexandria has no windows, and therefore no way for passersby to observe the chickens’ fate, Mused said; waste would be stored in a freezer and removed either every day or every other day.

Critics of the projects said odors could still escape through the ventilation system, distracting dogs and offending human customers of existing businesses on Colvin Street, a short thoroughfare that commuters use as a rush-hour shortcut and that is closed down each year for a block party called “Love Your Pets Day.”

At the March 16 council meeting, opponents of the slaughterhouse envisioned feathers and feces escaping from the delivery trucks. Street parking is already so scarce that Modell said she has to stagger class times. Where would Mused’s customers park on a normal business day, much less during periods when demand spikes, she asked.

“It would be difficult to bring Alexandria together on ‘Love Your Pets Day’ if you’re walking by a slaughterhouse,” said Kevin Gilliam, co-owner of Frolick Dogs.

That celebration will be held this year on April 28.

Colvin Street, potholed and rutted, is clearly tailored to industrial uses. Directly across from the proposed butcher shop is the city’s recycling drop-off center. Next to that is a construction company that has been in business for 50 years. Car repair shops and landscaping businesses stand between unmarked warehouses.

In the past five years or so, several dog training businesses, a dog day care and a pet spa have opened, said Modell. A barbecue and a pizza restaurant are within a block. Opponents say a slaughterhouse would be better located in an agricultural area.

Supporters said the nearest halal slaughterhouses in Virginia are in Warrenton, in Fauquier County, or Haymarket, in Prince William County, and that the demand for one closer to the population centers of the area already exists.

“Our community needs more of these markets,” said Tallzib Bacchus of Falls Church, who described the halal method of slaughtering as humane and able to provide “quality, safe and uncontaminated meats” for the general public.

Alexandria resident Ali Algabyali said he has tired of driving far to the west to purchase fresh halal meats.

“Instead of taking my money to Warrenton, I should be putting that money in my own community,” he said.

Maribeth Nyerges, owner of Maribeth’s Bakery, runs a commercial kitchen on Colvin Street and is upset that the city did not notify nearby property owners individually. She said she realized what was happening when she was out walking her dog and saw a headline in a neighborhood newspaper.

The city advertised the special-permit hearing in a local weekly newspaper and posted a placard on the street Feb. 21. It was reposted a week later after the original one came down, city officials said.

Mused said he has had a number of Northern Virginia customers travel to his Philadelphia store to buy live chickens and take them home to slaughter themselves, a practice he does not encourage. In addition to Muslim customers, Hispanic residents often buy fresh chickens, he said, and large numbers of both groups live in the Northern Virginia suburbs closest to Washington.

A special-use permit is required to open the slaughterhouse because keeping live poultry overnight is not a specified use in Alexandria’s industrial zone. Alexandria’s planning commission recommended granting the permit.

At the March 16 council meeting, two of the seven members were absent. Council member Mo Seifeldein proposed restricting delivery hours, but could not muster a second to the motion. Despite urging from Mayor Justin Wilson, council members Del Pepper, Amy Jackson and Elizabeth Bennett-Parke said virtually nothing throughout the debate and refrained from casting votes until Seifeldein proposed delaying the issue until next week. They voted in favor of that idea.

Mused opened his first slaughterhouse, Saba Live Poultry, in 1998 in Brooklyn. He has eight locations in the New York area, two in Connecticut, two in California and one in Philadelphia.

The company has not had serious problems with health or safety inspections in those locations, Mused said. He said the halal method of slaughter strives to be humane: Chickens are not killed within sight of each other, he said, and they are slaughtered with a quick cut to their necks. The premises are sanitized each day and shut down periodically for three days of deep cleaning, Mused said.

None of those arguments seemed to make a dent with opponents.

“I’m not going to this neighborhood any more. Not if this is here,” Thomas Maresh, a city resident who goes to a dance studio nearby, told the council on March 16. “I’ll take my dance lessons to Arlington or somewhere else. I just can’t deal with this.”

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